AUGUSTA, Maine — Filling the State House Hall of Flags with chants of “Keep Maine healthy, tax the wealthy,” the Maine People’s Alliance, a 30-year-old advocacy group that promotes liberal causes, launched its Fair Tax Towns Campaign on Tuesday.
The campaign aims to rally support for municipal resolutions opposing Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed $6.3 billion 2014-15 biennial budget, which would suspend municipal revenue sharing, cap state aid for general assistance and eliminate state property tax relief programs for Mainers who aren’t elderly or veterans.
The afternoon event drew more than 100 people, including some legislators, mostly Democrats, who watched from the wings. It featured comments from one current Maine mayor, Charlotte Warren of Hallowell, and one former mayor, LePage, who as mayor of Waterville in a 2009 video castigated state government for “transferring the state responsibility back onto the property tax owners.”
In the video provided by Maine’s Majority, another liberal group that aggressively criticizes LePage’s policies as governor, then-Mayor LePage, a Republican, called the budget-balancing measures proposed by then-Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, an unfunded mandate, as well as a less socially acceptable term for bovine excrement.
“What’s frustrating is that we have someone in our state government that is so intent on having change and will just ram it down your throat,” the video shows LePage saying.
Maine People’s Alliance argues that LePage, as governor, is now trying to do the same thing. Baldacci, who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, has said he’s considering another Blaine House run, which could put him on the gubernatorial ballot against LePage, who has formed a re-election committee but not formally announced whether he’ll seek a second term.
The video drew cheers and laughter from Tuesday’s crowd, who booed when asked by Maine People’s Alliance volunteer Cheryl Lee if they agree with LePage’s budget. When prompted, audience members cheered when Lee asked them if they supported LePage’s mayoral rant.
The LePage administration did not comment on the video. “Gov. LePage has presented a balanced budget proposal and would like to hear other ideas for structural changes that will lead to a more efficient and effective delivery of government services,” Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email.
Warren said LePage’s proposal to suspend municipal revenue sharing for 2014-15 would yield a “$547,569 hit to our city budget,” which she said equates to $230 per Hallowell resident. She told the crowd that the Hallowell City Council on Monday unanimously passed a resolution calling on the governor and on the Legislature to reject the proposed cuts to revenue sharing, the circuit breaker and homestead property tax exemptions.
The Maine People’s Alliance will encourage municipal governing bodies to pass resolutions similar to Hallowell’s in opposition to LePage’s proposed budget cuts. Lee listed more than 50 communities in which similar efforts are planned. In response to a request from Lee, another dozen or so people in the crowd said they would push their city and town leaders for the same type of resolution.
“The purpose of the fair tax towns project is not just for our members and towns across the state to speak out and say they oppose these cuts and property tax increases, but to make the point that there’s a better way — we can solve a great deal of our problems just by making the tax code a little more fair,” Lee said.
While saying their current focus is the supplemental budget to balance state government’s books for the fiscal year that ends June 30, Democrats in the Legislature have criticized the governor’s proposal to suspend municipal revenue sharing as way to pass to property taxpayers the cost of income tax cuts enacted by the previous GOP-led Legislature.
“We welcome this interest in defending our communities from the tax shift in the governor’s budget,” House Majority Leader Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said in a news release about Tuesday’s event. “We were encouraged to see so many Maine people making their voices heard about those goals.”
Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, reiterated the governor’s call for alternatives from those who oppose his budget. “Democrats can certainly cheer on this rally without presenting any solutions of their own, but it will not get us any closer to a balanced budget,” she said.
Some Republican legislators also expressed dissatisfaction with the proposed revenue sharing suspension, but in recent days House Republicans have amplified arguments that a two-year cessation in municipal revenue sharing ought not be viewed as an automatic trigger for higher property taxes or municipal service cuts.
David Sorensen, communications director for the House Republicans, also took issue with Democrats’ characterization of LePage’s proposal to suspend municipal revenue sharing as a major tax shift. In an email, Sorensen labeled the federal government’s reduction in Medicaid reimbursement funds a tax shift for which the LePage administration and GOP-led 125th Legislature “found savings and paid our bills without raising taxes on Mainers.”